Monday, June 15, 2009

'The Hindus - an alternative history' by Wendy Doniger

A fascinating tale of two stories

Instead of just being a excellent history of Hinduism, this book is also a great book of Indian History. The author traces India's history from the period of the Indus valley Civilization to the the end of the British Raj in the 20th century. And what a story!

Without any bias or cultural hangovers, the author provides a very neutral analysis of the development of Hinduism. However it is bound to provoke lot of criticism - especially from the religious groups. Further the emphasis of the author to the alternative voices (that of the women, lower castes etc) will also raise many hackles. However I found the book fascinating.

One of the most impressive aspect of the book is the in depth coverage of the ancient Indian books like Mahabhartha, Ramayana, Arthsastra and Kamasutra and the influence of these books on each other. The influence of the religions like Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism on one another during the centuries makes very interesting reading.

It is amazing how the author has made what typically would be a dry subject into such an interesting narrative. And once in a while the author's sense of humor surfaces with a very apt witty comment. I enjoyed the footnotes also tremendously - one of the best being Longfellow's poem on King Trisanku.

With over 700 pages, the book is meant for the serious reader. Also a good knowledge of Hinduism and India is essential to enjoy the book. A religious Hindu might find it difficult to handle the analysis of the texts and the actions their gods. But if you are really keen to learn more about India and Hinduism this book is one of the best.

Now for some criticism - the Upanishads could have been covered in more detail; The Mughal period was rushed in a few pages; The chapter on 'Hinduism in America' seemed completely out of place. Ideally the book should have been divided into two - the first part stopping at around 1500 AD and the second part (if really needed - there are many books covering the period since then) from 1500 to present date. The influence of Hinduism on the rest of the world could be covered there (and not just America).

I did not see a mention of M.T.Vasudevan Nair's 'Randamuzham' which is an alternative story of Mahabharatha (and more plausible). The author would have definitely found it very enjoyable and it would have been worth using in some places in the initial chapters. It is written in Malayalam - I am not sure if an English translation exists.

An Indian version (in English) with the poems and quoted texts in sanskrit/hindi would be a great next step for 'The Hindus - an alternative history'.

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